MANAMA, Bahrain — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Saturday condemned the killing of Washington Post contributor and Saudi government critic Jamal Khashoggi as intolerable, minutes before Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, at the same venue, criticized the “ hysterical” global reaction in the case.
In his first substantive comments on a cascading geopolitical crisis that risks rupturing Saudi Arabia’s relations with the West, Mattis suggested that the killing threatened to undermine stability in the Middle East.
The defense secretary made the remarks at a security conference in the island kingdom of Bahrain, across a bridge from Saudi Arabia, shortly before Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir decried what he said was a rush to conclusions before the investigation’s completion.
Since Khashoggi disappeared at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, Saudi officials have issued an evolving series of narratives.
On Thursday, Saudi Arabia appeared to acknowledge that its agents had killed the dissident Saudi journalist in a “premeditated” operation but has not implicated top officials, including the de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Mattis said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would be taking unspecified “additional measures” in response to the killing beyond the revocation of U.S. visas for certain Saudi suspects. The administration, however, has so far been reluctant to join calls by European allies and others for harsher measures against Riyadh, including a possible halt to arm sales.
Above all, Mattis pushed the message that the Khashoggi killing was both a human rights issue and a national security concern for nations in the Middle East.
“When opposing voices can be heard within a political process adapted to each nation’s culture, one that permits peaceful opposition by giving voice and human rights to all, a nation becomes more secure,” Mattis said.
“When people can speak and be heard calling for peace and respect for all, the terrorist message of hatred and violence is not embraced. With our collective interests in peace and unwavering respect for human rights in mind, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in a diplomatic facility must concern us all greatly,” he continued.
Without naming Saudi Arabia, Mattis suggested that Khashoggi’s death threatened to stir greater instability in the Middle East at a critical time. The region is struggling to cope with brutal conflicts in Syria and Yemen, a political division between several Persian Gulf nations and Qatar, and what Mattis described as malign activity from Iran across the region.
“Failure of any one nation to adhere to international norms and the rule of law undermines regional stability at a time when it is needed most,” Mattis said.
Saudi Arabia is not only the biggest importer of U.S. arms, but it is also a critical partner in the Trump administration’s Middle East agenda, which includes stabilizing Syria, brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, curtailing Iranian influence, finishing off the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and bringing an end to the war in Yemen.
The conference venue of Bahrain also showed the convergence of U.S. and Saudi interests. The tiny island nation is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, gives critical support to Bahrain’s Sunni rulers, who in 2011 faced Arab Spring-inspired protests led by the country’s Shiite majority.
Mattis’s comments stood in contrast to the wait-and-see approach taken by Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister.
“This issue has become fairly hysterical,” Jubeir said. “I think people have assigned blame on Saudi Arabia with such certainty before the investigation is complete. We have made it clear that we are going to have a full and transparent investigation, the results of which will be released.”
Jubeir did not directly answer a question about whether it was credible for the Saudi leadership to suggest the crown prince was unaware of a large-scale operation involving more than a dozen agents to target Khashoggi in Istanbul.
“We know that a mistake was committed,” Jubeir said. “We know that people exceeded their authority. We know that we’ll investigate it.”
Jubeir rejected the idea of extraditing the suspects in the killing to Turkey. The suspects in question are Saudi nationals and will be prosecuted in Saudi Arabia, he said.
Turkey has requested the extradition of 18 Saudi nationals arrested by Saudi authorities in the killing, including members of the 15-man “hit squad” allegedly sent from Saudi Arabia and three consular employees. The Turkish government has argued that it should prosecute the crime because the killing took place in Turkey and consular employees “do not enjoy legal immunity in the case of grave crimes” under the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, according to a Turkish official.
“It would be best for the reputation of our Saudi friends that the court proceedings take place in Turkey,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the Turkish government’s internal deliberations.
Despite raising Khashoggi’s killing as a cause for concern, Mattis trod lightly when criticizing Riyadh and did not go as far as President Trump, who said Saudi Arabia’s response to the journalist’s disappearance amounted to the “worst coverup ever.”
The Saudi journalist and author, who contributed to the Global Opinions section of The Post, entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in early October to pick up paperwork he needed to marry his Turkish fiancee. That was the last time he was seen in public.
Saudi officials have sought to contain damage from the resulting scandal by arresting 18 Saudi nationals, firing senior officials and saying they are restructuring the nation’s intelligence agency. Questions have persisted, however, about what the 33-year-old Saudi crown prince, a target of Khashoggi’s criticism, knew about the operation in Istanbul. Mohammed was also placed in charge of restructuring the intelligence agency.
Trump has repeatedly said he wants to get to the bottom of what happened but does not want to jeopardize the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia, in particular the kingdom’s major purchases of U.S. weapons systems.
Mattis underscored the position in his speech in Bahrain, backing the administration’s “twin imperatives” of protecting U.S. interests and holding accountable those responsible for the killing.
Mattis said the United States’ respect for the Saudi people was undiminished, but he added that “with our respect must come transparency and trust.”
“These two principles are vital for ensuring the continued collaboration we know is necessary for a safe, secure and prosperous Middle East,” Mattis said.
During his speech, he also called for an end to the war in Yemen but did not address the humanitarian impact of Saudi-led coalition airstrikes that have killed hundreds of civilians, or a coalition blockade that has pushed the nation to the brink of famine. For more than three years, the Saudi-led coalition has been struggling in vain to defeat Iranian-allied Houthi rebels. Various estimates have put the death toll at between 10,000 to 50,000 people with more than 8 million more dependent on emergency food aid to survive.
The United States provides limited military backing to the Saudi-led coalition prosecuting the Yemen campaign, including aerial refueling and intelligence support.
“All wars must eventually end, and the tragedy of Yemen worsens by the day,” Mattis said. “Enough time has been spent on the subordinate issues; now is the time to move forward on stopping this war. In November, we must start negotiating the substance of the issues. Compromise must replace combat, and the people must have peace to heal.”
Still, the defense secretary backed the justification for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen.
“I reiterate U.S. support for our partners’ right to defend themselves against Iranian-supplied Houthi attacks on their sovereign territory and, at the same time, call for an urgent end to the fighting,” he said.